HL Deb 18 December 2002 vol 642 cc651-3

3.4 p.m.

Lord Glentoran asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they agree with the Irish Taoiseach that "while Stormont was suspended, the Belfast agreement was not".

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the agreement is very much alive. Devolved government had, unfortunately, to be suspended. Other institutions, such as the North-South Ministerial Council, were necessarily bound up in that suspension. Many aspects of the agreement remain fully in force, including the important guarantee of consent to constitutional change. We are intent on pursuing the many reforms and benefits flowing from it.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that response. I had anticipated, knowing him a little, a monosyllabic response. Does he agree that any attempt to continue the cross-border institutions while the Assembly is suspended would be in complete breach of the spirit and letter of the Belfast agreement?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, we should do our utmost to co-operate fully with the Government of the Irish Republic. That is in the interests of everyone living south or north of the Border. There is continuing and, I suggest, appropriate contact between the two Governments because that will be the way forward for all of our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland.

Lord Laird

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that the Belfast agreement was sold to the unionist community in Northern Ireland on the basis that it was safe to take part in cross-border bodies because there would be a unionist veto? Does he share my disgust that a few days ago the Irish Government, without consulting anyone else, rewrote the Belfast agreement to take out the unionist veto and unionist consent? We were simply taken out of the decision-making loop. That has produced a system that appears to involve joint authority between the British Government and the Irish Government. Does he understand the disgust that we in Northern Ireland feel now that there is a clear breach of the Belfast agreement? A document that we were told could not be amended has been amended by the Dublin Government. Does he agree that if, in a few months, there has been no continuation of devolution, there is likely to be no North-South Ministerial Council or implementation bodies?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not believe that the Belfast agreement could properly or reasonably be described as having been amended. There is the veto in that agreement which I referred to earlier; namely, no constitutional change without the approval of the majority of those living in Northern Ireland. That is critically important. However, it would be foolish and irresponsible for the British Government not to co-operate as fully and appropriately as possible with the Irish Government. That is in the interests of everyone living on the island of Ireland.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that a rather warped, black-lettered and strict constructionist interpretation of the Belfast agreement is wholly negative and does not help the process to continue? It is vital for Northern Ireland in particular that cross-border business and other transactions continue to take place. I am sure that he will agree that we cannot suspend normal activity in Northern Ireland simply because we currently have an abeyance in the devolutionary settlement.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. The Belfast agreement is an instrument for our common purposes and we need to make it work. I believe that it has worked very significantly and I am confident that it will continue to do so. The noble Lord is right to say that we cannot simply put a line under the Belfast agreement and it is not useful to indulge in hyperbole. I remind the House that 11 people have lost their lives as a result of the security situation in Northern Ireland this year. That is 11 too many. Noble Lords will want to compare that with the lamentable numbers of deaths in previous years.

Lord Kilclooney

My Lords, the Lord Privy Seal said that the consent of the people of Northern Ireland is paramount. Does he recall that in selling the Belfast agreement—I was one of the negotiators—to the people of Northern Ireland there were three interdependent strands? Strand one is not now in operation. The Assembly was suspended and is increasingly unlikely to be in place by May. That being the case, can the Belfast agreement continue indefinitely without an Assembly at Stormont?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not believe that the Assembly is increasingly unlikely to be re-elected. Our aim, hope and purpose is that there should be Assembly elections in May, as the Secretary of State has said on many occasions. I repeat my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton: the Belfast agreement is an instrument—an agreement—for our purposes. It is not the terminus of our efforts; it is a useful way of going towards that.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord accept that governments anywhere who share a common frontier have to be in constant co-operative arrangements with each other regardless of the particular institutional form that that may take? As a supplement to that, can the noble and learned Lord give us any good news regarding the harmonisation of fuel duties between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I cannot deal with that specific matter. But the noble Lord's general point—as so often is the case, if I may respectfully say so, in his comments on Northern Ireland—is a civilised and reasonable approach. We cannot wish away the boundary; we cannot wish away our past separate and joint history.

Forward to